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Zero Dark Thirty and Torture Debate Rages Onward

The critics have come out in force protecting Kathryn Bigelow and the best reviewed film of the year and critics award winner, Zero Dark Thirty, from accusations that it apologizes for and/or condones torture as one of the methods in truth seeking.  Glenn Kenny has written an eloquent defense of the film as art rather than history,  (“I see it entirely as a fiction”), and a chorus of defenses have followed. Kenneth Turan at the LA Times and Manohla Dargis have both included paragraphs in their reviews that address the torture depicted in the film.   But to me, the defense of Bigelow is a little irritating. First, she can defend herself, and second – are they defending their reviews or Bigelow’s film?  Is it a matter of most critics being left-leaning? Or is it that they’re afraid the worm will turn and Zero Dark Thirty will be appreciated less BY liberals because of it?   A similar strain haunted The Hurt Locker, as liberals called it pro-war and conservatives called it anti-war.  But it, like Zero Dark Thirty, stripped away the bullshit and told the truth. Perhaps, with Zero Dark Thirty, it isn’t as palatable, but it is a truth nonetheless.   Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal told the truth from what they gathered from sources in the military and in the CIA.  Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman is really only the first critic I’ve read so far that wants to deal less with a defense of Bigelow and more with the reality of the film and the history; after all, why the need to deny what is plainly obvious on screen? People are going to see the movie so they will see for themselves.  Gleiberman does not seek to fulfill an agenda but rather, looks carefully at the film and what exactly happens with the torture scenes.  You’ll want to read the full piece but the money shot:

 If Zero Dark Thirty was a movie that really had demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that torture doesn’t work (and Kathryn Bigelow is now such a virtuoso filmmaker that I have no doubt she could have made that point indelibly if she’d wanted to), it might have been a seamless celebration of true-life spy-game detective know-how. But the picture is rougher, grittier, and more dangerous than that. It shows us how, in the post-9/11 world, even CIA officers operating in their protective bunkers can get blown away by a suicide bomber. And one of the quietly subversive ways that it re-imagines what a contemporary movie heroine can be lies in Maya’s own reaction to witnessing torture. When she first arrives from Washington, she’s dewy and tentative, and we suspect that she’ll be repelled by it. But she’s not. She’s stoically accepting. She combs through grainy videotapes of prisoners who’ve been tortured, searching for clues anywhere she can — and, on several occasions, finding them. To me, that makes Zero Dark Thirty not an apology for torture so much as a powerful acknowledgement that we might never have found and killed Osama bin Laden without the willingness to enter the fog of war.

 

26 Comments on this Post

  1. I’ve tried to read all the articles/reviews in defense of or against the torture in the film and it’s as murky as the torture debate held on Capital Hill. Sounds like the film is open to interpretation based on your POV or your politics. After I read this last article from Slate (and got a giant headache) I realized that NO ONE really knows what Bigelow was trying to say and it’s best to just sit back and watch the film as entertainment without taking it as a factual documentary:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2012/12/zero_dark_thirty_and_torture_does_kathryn_bigelow_s_bin_laden_movie_make.single.html

  2. Haven’t seen it yet, but read several this essays, and this is what I’m spitting out:

    The assassination of Bin Laden for many is seen as victory for “the left,” because it happened on “their guy’s” watch. Likewise, it’s a sore-spot for some conservatives. From what I understand from what is known about the facts, the chain of events that led to the killing didn’t involve torture–which would be another sore spot for conservatives, if true. That it supposedly is true, but might’n be, is a win/win for liberals, none-the-less, because, regardless, Bin Laden’s demise happened on “their guy’s” watch. By entertaining an ambiguity, the filmmakers have got people talking and doesn’t entirely shut out a large portion of the marketplace that just might consider actually seeing the movie (if at all). I’m anxiously awaiting how the General Public will receive this movie.

    And, I look forward to seeing the film as well so I can see what all the fuss is about.

  3. Linc4Jess

    Regardless and maybe unintentional at the time by Bigelow and Boal, evidently the film “Zero Dark Thirty” does leave the viewer the impression that so call torture or water boarding did lead to information used in the killing of Bin Laden. I mean John McCain who is against water boarding and , a tortured POW himself, who obviously has seen the film is livid and mad as hell that the film suggests and evidently state the case for torture. It seems from what I read, now, the Conservative right is hailing and embracing ZDT and all of a sudden because of this there is backlash from some liberal critics to where the film is suddenly after seemingly filled with steroids is now fizzling and stuttering out of gas . This said I have come to the conclusion that anytime a film with political overtones, no matter how slight, is viewed positive by liberal critics who review the film at first but who shortly thereafter find the film is embraced by the Conservative right which ZDT seems to be they all of a sudden turn against the film and do their best to sink it. Think “The Dark Knight”, The Dark Knight Rises” as two very recent glowing examples. This said, from reading Sasha comments it seems that many liberals are defending the film but for what reasons. Am I making sense here or not.

  4. Linc4Jess

    One more comment. Actually I believe all this talk of torture or waterboarding leading to the capture of Bin Laden is kind of out in left field. The real reason Bin Laden was located and thus gave the US the opportunity to capture and kill Bin Laden was because a brave Pakistan Doctor came forward with the information to the CIA of where Bin Laden was housed and for his efforts the United States has rewarded this brave soul by allowing the Pakistan Government to apprehend and imprison the man for 30 yrs where he remains to this day.

  5. Linc4Jess

    If it had not being for this brave man this brave hero, THIS Pakistan Doctor, BIN LADEN WOULD STILL BE ALIVE TODAY.

  6. Zero Dark Thirty may not be a documentary, but it is a document. It states only what is truth and what it is interpreting as truth, and passes no judgement. I can’t understand the argument that judgement ought to have been passed by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. Isn’t that our individual responsibility to ourselves, if it is even a responsibility at all? Can’t we be satisfied that we have made our own minds up, and that we have our own opinions? It is due to the apolitical stance adopted by Bigelow that we are able to do so.

    Were all matters within a political context presented through a veil of propagandistic lecturing, society would become brainwashed. Leave that to the dictators and the non-democratic nations. Isn’t all the best news broadcasting neutral? You wanna be told how to think and how to lap up pre-packaged opinions? Watch Fox News. It’s the other side of this debate to the side that takes umbrage at Bigelow’s neutrality in Zero Dark Thirty, but it’s the same principle.

    Thank goodness no-one forced Kathryn Bigelow to take a specific side (either one) on torture in 0D30. Now we can be comfortable in knowing that we’re free to make our own decisions, and to express them.

  7. From what I have gathered by reading different point of views, what really bugs detractors of the film and its alleged glorification of torture, is the dual position taken by Bigelow and Boal. The Guardian says it all in its initial article.

    “If writers at major media outlets who review the film all say the film shows torture being helpful in finding bin Laden – all while the film’s director runs around the country praising herself for her journalistic approach to the film while the film’s screenwriter defends this artistic license to depict the non-existent value of torture (as he did to Filkins) – then people are going to talk about that, and they should. They’re also going to talk about reviewers who simultaneously gush about the film while noting that it falsely depicts torture as helping find bin Laden, and they should do that also.

    That so many reviewers walked away with a pro-torture message from the film – that torture was key to finding bin Laden – means that large numbers of viewers likely will as well, regardless of the after-the-fact claimed intent of the filmmakers. That, by itself, is highly problematic and worthy of commentary.”

    So whilst I very much agree with what Gleiberman said above, I also agree with the Guardian. Boal and Bigelow cannot really have it both ways. They cannot claim they had a journalistic, “true to the fact” approach (comforted by all the previous debate about their access to confidential information given by the Obama’s administration) and then back up and hide behind artistic license when they feel slightly uneasy about the issue of torture. They put themselves into this situation and created this debate in the first place by trying to sell the film as a neutral realistic document of this episode.

    Anyhow I am very much looking forward to see it now. There is no doubt Bigelow is a great director, and it feels like this time she actually had great material to work on. It might even erase the bad taste The Hurt Locker left in my mouth.

  8. So glad you mentioned the Glenn Kenny article, Sasha. I almost linked it in a reply yesterday to a reader slamming Bigelow and Boal for not taking a political stance. Then I thought, wtf, why bother?

    If someone is not interested in the extra click, here’s a small excerpt as it relates to politics, torture and judging movies in general:

    “I am looking at a fiction, period. And it is from experiencing the work as a fiction that I draw my conclusions….So when a pundit tells me “Don’t Trust Zero Dark Thirty,” my response is, “Don’t worry, I don’t; at least not in the way that you are so kindly concerned about.” … I deal with it as a discrete story and, when forming a critique of it, try to look at the way it’s told.”

    He continues a bit further on:

    “And what I saw when I watched to movie was a very well-constructed narrative that, to my mind, was concerned with knowing and with the action taken as a result of knowing, or “knowing.” I saw a movie that subverted a lot of expectations concerning viewer identification and empathy, including the use of a lead character who in a conventional good-guy-versus-bad-guy scenario would raise objections to torture but who instead, a few queasy looks and pauses aside, rolls with it as an information gathering policy.”

  9. @ Paddy

    No documents, and especially not a documentary, is neutral. There is no such thing if it has been somehow processed by a human being. The way a film is directed, edited, the choice of the actors, the set, everything is a stance.

  10. @Paddy: I wasn’t trying to be flip when I said it’s not a documentary. That is in fact what the filmmakers themselves have said. From the Atlantic: ” Bigelow and Boal have presented their filmmaking process as “journalistic,” while at the same time stressing that the resulting movie is a work of fiction, not a documentary.”

    < We have to wait maybe 40 years for the details of the mission to be declassified to be able to read the real CIA documents. As with Argo, this is a film that is BASED on real life events but uses artistic license so it's not a document.

  11. Jeremie kind of nailed it in his first comment.

  12. The real Maya for example is probably not a 5’3″ hot redhead with a killer body. It’s a movie.

  13. I saw this movie today so I can share what I thought during those torture scenes. First of all, there were a little too much. Did they really need to show that much of torture? The first round was ok, may be necessary, but then another round? But then it all made sense, especially after that short clip of President Obama saying there would be no more torture (or something like that)..All those torture scenes were also critique of the methods used by the Bush administration. They were partly meant to show what kind of horrible methods that administration used and how it all ended with the Obama Presidency. If you follow the dates, after the election of Obama there were no more torture scenes, especially after that clip. I am not sure if there was no torture during Obama presidency (hard to believe that all that ended over night) but that was what I felt during the movie.

    It was a very well made movie. I really like Jessica Chastain’s performance, even though it was uneven in some parts (she really cant do screaming!).

    However, as Sasha says all the time, if it is about how the movies make you feel, I felt much more connected with Lincoln. His story and struggle touched me more than the entire catch/kill Osama story.

  14. Film Fatale

    @Aragorn

    Totally disagree. Zero Dark Thirty is a far superior picture and a dangerously provocative one for these times we live in. Lincoln is a well-made, nicely directed, very well-acted congressional procedural with little life in the characters. The performers are great, but to be honest, it’s not mind-blowing or that emotionally enveloping from a character perspective.

    Zero Dark Thirty may not be that either, but I was far more attached to Chastain’s Maya, watching her under a microscope, seeing her subtly change over the years, then exhilaratingly seeing her labor come to fruition and then emotional release in the final shot of the film. It is a movie that grabs you, punches you, shakes you up and charges forward for nearly three hours. Frankly, it does indeed suggest that torture — looked at unblinkingly at times but honestly, they are just actors — can produce results, but that you kind of lose a bit of your soul in the process. The torture is presented as a war game that is played well by the U.S. and contrary to what is mentioned above, the CIA agents react cynically to the Obama interview about torture not being part of what American stands for — they roll their eyes; they know better.

    It is a hell of a gripping movie and in my view dwarfs Lincoln, which is polite and historically accurate and nicely done all around and, at times, stirring and perhaps maybe better than that.

    But no contest, in my view.

  15. Linc4Jess

    @film Fatale. The performers are great, but to be honest, it’s not mind-blowing or that emotionally enveloping from a character perspective.

    To each his own but I personally disagree with your comment and frankly think you contradict yourself with your comments but moving on I found the performances and the film “Lincoln” to be just that.. emotionally enveloping and mind blowing. As for ZDT I see now where most in Congress who have seen the film “Zero Dark Thirty” find it to be an awful, scary, and dangerous film even though they realize it is just Hollywood fiction. They won’t have any votes as to its chances of best picture but could figure in as to how the film is received by the Academy. We shall see.

  16. christiannnw

    Having FINALLY being able to see Zero Dark Thirty (I’m one of the plebs.. blegh), I must say that all of this pro/against-torture rambling misses the point of the film entirely; the employment of torture on terrorist prisoners were one of many methods used to acquire information indicating the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. I really wish the world at large (aka bloggers) exemplified the same open-mindedness and rationale that this site’s writers’ have when writing about ZDK.

    That being said, I didn’t view the film as the “procedural” so many writer’s have labelled it; on the contrary, I thought it to be solemn reflection on the decade preceding Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, with the conclusion of the film (that final shot oh my gosh!) paralleling our nation’s ongoing uncertainty following these events. At no point during the film’s 160min length did I feel as if it was checking off boxes (it’s divinely edited, and I wouldn’t have minded if it surpassed the three hour mark), and being informed of the human elements behind this story (sort of) moved me enormously; this film is a tale upon which all of us (Americans slightly more so) should be able to relate to, as we’re all affected by it. CLINICAL MY BUTT.

    P.S. this film was wonderful.

    (End of rant)

  17. Film Fatale

    @Linc4Jess

    One of the main reasons people have such an affinity for Lincoln is because of some very strange and deep affection for Lincoln, the man, and because they are hypnotized by Daniel Day-Lewis.

    And would you like to explain how I contradict myself? Can’t seem to find that anywhere in my post.

  18. I liked the movie. And the clip I was skeptical about that AD posted out of context very much worked in the movie. So, my skepticism was unwarranted.

    Two points:

    -While Jessica Chastain did exactly what she needed to with the role, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Silver Linings had more to offer. ZD30 may be the more “important” film, but Lawrence had the better performance. She had an opportunity to deliver the goods and she did. That it’s no mark against Chastain. But, the film, as exciting and thrilling as it was at times, was essentially a very well-written and engrossing procedural. There were some nice character-based nuances, but this film was not intended to be an acting showcases (Jennifer Ehle, however, reminded me a younger Meryl Streep). Its main strengths were going to be its screenplay and editing, and, in those two areas, it did very, very well.

    -The film takes a slight pro-torture stand. While there is ambiguity, the courier-controversy is almost a non-starter, a distraction. It all really comes down to the Maya character: she will do ANYTHING, and EVERYTHING to get her man. The movie makes no secret of this. She stops short of saying she will use any and every tool at her disposal. And, the film is not critical of her at all. It champions her. And, in that respect, yes, the film does endorse torture (slightly).

    That being said, the fire alarm went off right at the climax (the timing couldn’t have been more perfect and horrible). After evacuating the 16-or-so-screen Arclight Hollywood, we resumed our seats only to be told the rest of the movie was canceled.

    So, full disclosure, my opinion doesn’t take into effect the last half hour. With that clip, and now a partial viewing, I seemed destined to watch this film in piece-meal.

  19. Critics are behaving like someone cought with their hand in the cookyjar. Having praised and awarded a movie that evidently supports the notion that torture works, liberal critics are now feeling the heat, as they should. I’m almost certain the backlash would’ve been greater had Bigelow been a man. It would’ve most likely been called unnecessary tool, something that diminishes the film.

    I’m also not sure why Bigelow is running away from the torture-scenes in her film. Should’nt she embrace it ? It would make her more honest.

  20. The noose is tightening around Team Bigelow; now bi-partisan questions now over whether this is accurate. It’s not a smear campaign if the accusations turn out to be right.

  21. Jesus Christ, ALL politicians are being big babies right now. There have been countless movies regarding torture but none of them really dealt with bin Laden, a prized victory. Let it go. It’s a movie and they are entirely missing the point. There are times where I wonder if politicians enjoyed the movie but feel like they MUST address the issue for the sake of the public’s interest. Just because Bigelow and Co. put it on screen does not mean it really happened, maybe it did but nobody should jump down their throats because they didn’t draw a line in the sand and say “This side is torture. We’re on the other side.” There doesn’t need to be a disclaimer at the end of the film. Politicians really think we must be stupid to think that the public believes anything that happens on screen must have really happened. That’s why a caption will read, “BASED on a true story” not “Word for word…this shit happened”. Just because Tarantino showed Hitler getting shot in the face by the Bear Jew doesn’t mean it really happened. However all this coverage about the torture scenes might give Jason Clarke a huge boost come Oscar time ;)

  22. Whoops, meant to say “politicians really think the public believes…”

  23. #Kane: Bigelow and the screenwriter stated that they were going for “journalistic” filmmaking, so it’s on them. There is no doubt torture was used, but Bigelow and her writer are asking us not to judge it.

  24. Mohammed, yes you are right. Bigelow and Boal did take a more journalistic approach. I have no doubt that torture is used. My main point is that they never took a side on the issue because to them it might not be one, it might be an event they were told happened and they took it from there.

  25. They do take a side on the issue by presenting torture as effective, that it led us to Bin Laden, when it wasn’t. We found and killed Bin Laden in spite of, not because of, torture. Torture didn’t get us anywhere. By depicting it as a useful asset, the film takes a pro-torture stance and it also misrepresents history while posing as a journalistic and highly accurate depiction of what occurred. That the only major liberty it takes with the facts is to falsely depict torture as having “worked” makes it essentially pro-torture propaganda no matter how great it is otherwise.

  26. “But it, like Zero Dark Thirty, stripped away the bullshit and told the truth”

    It did not strip away bullshit and tell the truth. It added bullshit and lied by falsely presenting torture as leading us to Bin Laden when it didn’t. We got nothing out of torturing people and if anything it stalled the hunt for Bin Laden because those sources were burned by being tortured and didn’t give up actionable intelligence.

    To strip away bullshit and tell the truth would be to depict the torture but accurately as something attempted and used frequently even but not effectively, then show how we actually found Bin Laden which did not involve torture. Telling the truth means being accurate to the facts, which the film is not on the subject of torture. On that issue, in those scenes, it is all bullshit.

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